Friday, 14 January 2022
This time, these are not directly connected to Brexit yet they do relate to it. For one thing, it was Brexit which provided the route for Boris Johnson to come to power at all, so his premiership can be counted as one of its many costs. For another, the ‘partygate’ fiasco is a product of his endless dishonesty as well as ‘anti-ruleism’ both of which are the skeins linking his scandal-ridden administration and Brexit. And, for a third, at least some Brexiters are ludicrously suggesting that it is a ‘remainer’ plot, partly because some remainers are ludicrously suggesting it could put an end to Brexit.
Truss’s contradictory signals
Against this increasingly baroque and unstable background, Liz Truss has taken over (£) the now hardy perennial of a threat to “invoke Article 16” if the EU doesn’t accede to her demands in the negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). Even if this was designed for domestic consumption, it undermined reports that she is adopting a “warmer tone” (£) to the negotiations than Frost. Perhaps British politicians still haven’t cottoned on that the UK press is read abroad.
Yesterday evening, following talks during the day, she hosted Maros Sefcovic for dinner at Chevening, the Foreign Secretary’s stately home, although if that is the first prize offered in her charm offensive one wonders what the second is – two dinners with her, perhaps? Joking aside, this invitation does mark a departure from Frost’s approach and briefings beforehand suggested that a ‘re-set’ was in prospect, but that is hard to square that with the continuation of the Article 16 threat. At the very least, there’s no realistic way to re-set relations with the EU without also re-setting the promises to the ERG, which at her first chance Truss has failed to do.
The talks continue today so presumably there will be some statements later, although they are unlikely to be dramatic. It will, though, be significant if Article 16 is or isn’t mentioned. Maintaining the Article 16 threat is strange for three reasons. First, because, no matter what the more unlettered Brexiters seem to think, it doesn’t open the door to anything much except further talks with the EU and certainly doesn’t allow the UK to scrap or unilaterally rewrite the Protocol. Second, because acting on the threat would be likely, if not immediately then fairly soon, to entail some degree of trade war with the EU and some degree of diplomatic and economic pushback from the US, so as a threat it’s either self-defeating or unconvincing. And, third, because, unless all the reports to this effect are wrong, Boris Johnson had already decided not to act on this threat, thus provoking David Frost’s resignation.
Stick or twist?
Decoding what is going on in this ongoing Pontoon game is difficult and probably pointless. It could be that, perhaps because of Frost’s resignation, Johnson has changed his mind again. It could be that Truss is freelancing, perhaps with a view to cementing her own leadership chances if Johnson prevents her from following through on the threat. It could be a continuation of the persistent myth that ‘hard ball’ tactics will extract concessions from the EU at which point the UK climbs down on its most extreme demands – in this case an end to any role for the ECJ in Northern Ireland. It could be Truss playing to the ERG gallery. It could be that neither Truss nor Johnson really knows what they are doing, and just keep repeating the old familiar lines as if eventually they will make sense, or that ‘something will turn up’. It could be some combination of any or all of these.
At one level, all this can be viewed as part of the seemingly endless clown-show politics of Brexit and, certainly, as I argued in a recent post, part of the interminable internal fractiousness and factionalism of the Tory Party. But this is not a cost-free spectacle, and I see real difficulties ahead whatever the outcome, an outcome that must come soon – in weeks, if not days – whatever other political dramas are happening.
If, as common sense would suggest, the UK accepts a deal which involves, perhaps, a fudge on the ECJ – as implied in some recent reports (£) - as well as the already substantial accommodations on border checks and formalities offered by the EU, then I don’t think that the ERG and other hardline Brexiters are likely to sit back and take it. That is especially so given that Truss’s recent noises about Article 16 have suggested that the fundamental tenet of the NIP, Northern Ireland remaining in the single market for goods, is unacceptable, thus raising their expectations high.
The ERG already despise Johnson, and if he presides over any kind of ‘climbdown’ they will very likely move to finish him off, something not difficult in his weakened state. If that happens, there will be no need to shed tears except for the fact that if they succeed it is all but inevitable that his replacement will be elected on a more hardline prospectus, and so the whole saga over the NIP and Article 16 will start anew.
On the other hand, if Johnson (perhaps in anticipation of just such a scenario, or for other possible reasons discussed below) does now push things to a crisis with the EU, it will be by far the worst of the Brexit process to date, eclipsing the rows over the Internal Market Bill and the unilateral extension of NIP grace periods (with one immediate consequence being the resumption of the EU’s legal action over the latter).
How high a price are we going to pay for Brexit?
Whilst the hard line Brexiters are unlikely to care, it’s not clear how much more Brexit-induced damage Britain can soak up on top of all the problems of the pandemic and the growing energy and cost of living crisis. New analysis shows how, as EU trade recovers from the pandemic, the UK recovery lags behind. Manufacturers report and warn of the “soaring costs” of Brexit red tape, and an associated shortage of staff with the skills to deal with it, whilst industry is also bearing the costs of decoupling from the EU carbon market. The UK share of EU-funded science grants is slumping. The City of London is undergoing “a slow puncture” (£). And this is just a selection of this week’s damage reports.
It’s not, as is fatuously being discussed by Brexiters (£), that the government has ‘won the Brexit war but lost the peace’, it is that all the false claims made about the benefits of Brexit are gradually being found out. Brexit isn’t suffering from a failure to control the narrative. It’s simply suffering from failure. Do we really want to add the costs of a trade war with the EU? Nor would the costs be simply economic. If Article 16 is finally invoked, the reputational damage the UK has suffered as a result of Brexit and, especially, of the way it has been done, will be significantly added to, leaving the UK even more isolated from, and peripheral to, its natural friends and allies in the EU and the US at a time of growing tensions with, in particular, Russia and China*.
In her recent, and peculiarly hubristic, speech in the US, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt spoke as if with Brexit the UK had embarked on some world-leading, globally significant project to which the US and others needed to respond. Tellingly, embedded within it was a call to reject responses that, by implication, she realised were those most likely to be in her listeners’ minds:
“Brexit is not an event to be mourned by the international community. Or an act of self-harm or one that requires us to be punished.”
For whilst, despite the paranoia of some Brexiters, there has been no interest in punishing the UK, the overwhelming view of its international friends is both to mourn Brexit and see it as self-harm. How could it be otherwise? As Michael Cox, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at LSE, put it last year:
“Going it alone while taking regular potshots at the EU … might appeal to the gallery. But this does not change the simple fact that [the UK] now confronts an increasingly challenging international environment made up of an America in whose eyes it is now much less of an asset … a European Union which no longer trusts it … and a China too powerful to be pushed around or lectured … [A]s critics have been quick to point out … if the English were misguided enough to leave the biggest democratic and economic club in the world in which the UK had played a key role, whose members quite literally begged for it to remain, and through which it had amplified its voice in Washington, there would, in the end, be a price to pay. The only question remaining is how high will that price be and for how long will the UK be paying it?”
So could there be a Brexit re-set?
That last question, both as regards international relations and economics, is the crucial one now. We are where we are, as the political cliché has it, and what matters now is not so much to bemoan the past as to start trying to put matters right, the prerequisite of which has to be honesty. In an ideal world we would have a leader with the wisdom, insight and integrity to do this but instead we have the “unfathomably inadequate” Johnson who, reportedly, is “only interested in two things. Being world king and shagging”. It’s hardly an auspicious basis to meet the needs of the nation. Cometh the hour, cometh the man isn’t usually thought of in the terms which, on that account, Johnson would rise to the challenge.
That challenge isn’t just one for Johnson, but for Brexiters more generally. In a sense, it is no different to when a person makes a series of catastrophic decisions against the advice of friends and family. It may be too much to expect such a person to admit all of their follies and recant them. Most people are too proud to do that, at least until they reach the proverbial ‘rock bottom’, and, for all the damage done, Brexit Britain has some way to go before that. Perhaps until then nothing can change for the better, but perhaps at least some Brexiters can be led to draw fresh conclusions from their apparent recent realization, discussed in my previous post, that their project has not worked out as they expected. It may be that they continue to ascribe that to Brexit ‘not having been done right’ but, even if so, they, too, need to recognize that ‘we are where we are’.
This is obviously an easier ask of the softer parts of the leave voting public than it is of the Brexiters, but it does need to include at least some of the latter, even if not the ‘Ultra Ultras’ I discussed in that previous post. At a minimum, it means them acknowledging that Brexit has significantly undermined UK trade and UK business generally, and that extensive regulatory alignment is necessary. It means accepting that the NIP has been signed and that the EU proposals for its reform are reasonable, and could be augmented by Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary alignment (which would also be helpful for GB-EU trade). It means seeking to deepen the Trade and Cooperation Agreement when it comes up for its five-year review.
All of this seems to be where Labour Party policy is heading, and whilst it is nowhere near enough to satisfy, let alone delight, many erstwhile remainers, it’s a lot better than what we currently have. So Keir Starmer might be, or become, someone to tell the nation some home truths about Brexit, but we are probably a long way from an election which it’s not clear that Labour would win anyway. And much damage will be done before then if the Conservative government refuses to undertake a ‘re-set’ over Brexit.
Perhaps it is simply impossible for it to do so given the intransigence of the ERG and others, and the lurking influence of Nigel Farage. It’s certainly impossible to over-state the rabidity of the core pro-Brexit vote as shown, for example, by the extraordinary articles on the Brexit Watch section of the Conservative Woman website, reading which would make you think you had plumbed the depths of madness – until you read the comments beneath them. Of particular note is the almost messianic appeal of David Frost, apparently betrayed “at the very moment of his triumph”, whilst Truss is regarded as suspiciously “malleable”.
Yet, for all that, there are still considerable numbers of Conservative MPs and voters, represented most notably in cabinet by Rishi Sunak, who, whilst certainly pro-Brexit, would just like to see an end to the endless aggravation it has caused. In particular, those whose support for Johnson was predicated on his promise to ‘get Brexit done’ are likely to push for, or reward, a re-set, of which the most tangible outcome would be a settlement of the NIP row. It is, admittedly, the puniest of pegs on which to hang any hope for common sense to prevail.
Less optimistic scenarios
If such a re-set is the most optimistic – or over-optimistic – scenario, then a full-on crisis over the NIP would actually be the second best. For all the damage it would do, it might conceivably be a route to that ‘rock-bottom’ moment when, after these five long years and more, the Brexiters might, perhaps, be forced to face up to some truth.
Some may think that the intense political crisis currently engulfing Johnson make it more likely that this is the route he will go down, as a distraction. I think such ‘dead cat’ diagnoses are very rarely realistic and, in this case, would be more like to add to his problems than distract from them, compounding the sense that he is beleaguered at home and abroad. Even if it delighted one wing of his party it would alienate others, and even those in the first camp would quickly be disillusioned when they saw that nothing had been resolved by using Article 16 (if this does come to pass, by the way, they will then demand an even more extreme act e.g. completely reneging on the NIP: remember, the Ultras have never accepted it in its entirety).
Instead, the most likely scenario, which is actually the worst, is one in which Johnson seeks to keep his leadership afloat, and his party more or less together, by a partial climbdown so as to do a deal over the NIP, whilst not really accepting it as a final resolution and almost immediately re-commencing complaints and demands for fresh changes. So neither crisis nor re-set, but his usual approach of getting through the moment to see what turns up (the approach, pretty much, that led to the NIP in the first place). In this way he would seek to partially satisfy the ERG wing and partially satisfy the ‘pragmatic’ wing.
It would be opportunistic, dishonest, destabilizing for Northern Ireland, and damaging to the UK’s interests, of course, but these would hardly occur to Johnson as being problems if they enable him to prolong his grip on power.
The lies that bind us
Indeed, if I am right that that the pre-requisite for dealing with the damage of Brexit is honesty, we could hardly have a worse Prime Minister than Johnson, who is not so much pathologically dishonest as apparently unaware that honesty is even a thing. Yet it is important not to over-state the significance of single individuals, both in general and in relation to Brexit. If, or – as seems increasingly likely – when, Johnson is replaced, his successor will be bound by the same, structural, constraints. Most obviously, these are to do with the nature of the Conservative Party and the power of the Brexit Ultras. More fundamentally they arise from the dishonesty built in to the entire Brexit project.
*For a more detailed discussion of post-Brexit Britain’s international standing, and especially its current relationship with the US, as well as many other aspects of the current Brexit situation, see this week’s excellent post on Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s Brexit Impact Tracker blog.
Friday, 7 January 2022
There is a line, attributed to the mathematician G.H. Hardy, that “if the Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes in God, that’s all in the way of business, but if he says he doesn’t, one can take it he means what he says”. What, then, of the claim that “the hopes of those who voted for Brexit in 2016 have not been realised”? Or that the introduction of the first substantive phase of UK controls on imports from the EU, which started on 1 January, “threaten to wreak havoc on Britain”?
Coming from remainers, such sentiments would no doubt be dismissed as business as usual, but in fact the first is from an article in the Telegraph by Nigel Farage (£) whilst the second is a headline from the Brexiters’ other house journal, the Daily Express. More generally, recent weeks have seen increasing numbers of Brexiters voicing disappointment or concern about the realities of Brexit, a trend given fresh impetus by David Frost’s resignation with its lament for the government’s failure to “deliver on the opportunities [Brexit] gives us”.
However, that certainly doesn’t mean that they have actually faced up to these realities, still less that they have recanted on their support for Brexit. These are not, in fact, Archbishops declaring their atheism. So what should we make of what they are saying? And why does it matter?
Denial and desperation
In general terms, that things should have reached this point was almost inevitable. On the one hand, much of the damage and failure of Brexit was predictable. On the other hand, as I’ve argued many times, the most committed Brexiters are so invested in the idea of being betrayed and of victimhood that no actual Brexit would have satisfied them. Taken together, this meant it was almost guaranteed that the idea that ‘Brexit would have worked but it wasn’t done properly’ would develop.
What was also almost inevitable was that some Brexiters would simply continue to deny the damage. So although many of them at least tacitly accept that UK-EU trade has by definition been permanently depressed by the introduction of new barriers, others still refuse to do so – an example this week being the high priest of Brexiter economists, Professor Patrick Minford. He makes the economically illiterate claim that “[civil servants] said that actually we'd be damaged because we're making trade with Europe harder – which is not really true. Because there's no reason for having a border with the EU making it much harder to trade with the EU; there are no tariffs because we've got a trade agreement”. It seems he has still not grasped the significance of non-tariff barriers to trade, nor spoken to the many businesses struggling with the new import controls, at least some of which will either go out of business or cease to import from the EU.
That, in turn, will impact upon prices and consumer choice, and that is more than a matter of the metropolitan middle-class being unable to find cheap chorizo (it being an article of Brexiter faith that working-class people only eat tripe and faggots, just as they never go abroad for their holidays and rarely visit, still less live in, London). To what extent remains to be seen, although the Express’s talk of “havoc” is likely to be alarmist. More likely, as with Brexit economic effects in general, the impact of import controls will be one of gradual degradation, with each year life in Britain getting a little worse and a little more constrained than it would otherwise have been.
This will be compounded as the successive stages of import controls are rolled out over the coming months. However, when that gets mixed in with pandemic effects and energy price rises, it will mean that there is no great moment of revelation that Brexit has failed, just the steady accumulation of a realisation – as is already happening, including amongst a large minority of leave voters – that this is so.
One way that some Brexiters seek to head off such an assessment is not so much by denying as by downplaying the damage caused, principally by pointing to the aversion of worst-case scenarios (or of trumped-up, hyperbolic versions of such scenarios). Thus when border controls do not cause visible queues at borders, as has largely though not entirely been the case this week, the suggestion is that this means everything has ‘continued as normal’. But this ignores the invisible effects of goods not shipped because the necessary paperwork is not ready, or orders cancelled as the new costs and complexities become clear. It also ignores the way that where trade flows do ‘continue as normal’, they do so with the higher costs embedded within them, costs which are ongoing and which have wider impacts, whether that be in terms of higher prices, reduced competitiveness, reduced funds for investment, or less employment than would otherwise have been the case.
In this way, the old battle about Project Fear is still being fought, as if the case for Brexit were made by the avoidance of predicted damage rather than the need to show positive outcomes. A particularly egregious example this week was an attempt by Conservative journalist and commentator Harry Phibbs in Conservative Home to discredit various predictions, going back to the referendum, about this damage.
It is such a mish-mash of cherry-picked evidence, quotes and assertions that it would take literally hours, possibly days, to disentangle and evaluate the validity of the claims he makes about the warnings that were made and their context, and the validity of his claims about what has actually happened. I did consider doing it, but it is just not worth the effort. In any case, much of it rests on a simple misunderstanding of treating heuristic forecasts of what would happen ‘if everything else remained the same’ as if they were predictions of what would happen regardless of anything else that might change.
Yet, for all its inadequacies, it is of interest for two reasons. Firstly because it shows the desperation of the Brexiters, in the face of their increasingly discredited project, that they need to rely on the argument that it hasn’t been as bad as some said it might be. A similar desperation is shown by the continuing reliance on the now stock lie that Brexit enabled the early rollout of Covid vaccines, as implied by Phibbs and repeated this week by, amongst others, the former Chair of Vote Leave Matthew Elliott.
The other point of interest is how, with a couple of exceptions, Phibbs’ list is all about the economic costs (or not) of Brexit. This is important, because it once again falsifies the other Brexiter argument when those costs are pointed out, which is that their project was never about economics but simply about regaining sovereignty. As I discussed a few weeks ago, this is entirely untrue and their proposition was, rather, that the (supposed) regaining of sovereignty would yield economic benefits, or at least would have no economic costs.
The new critique, aka the same old promises
That latter point is an important one, because it is the key to understanding the present raft of alarmed commentaries amongst Brexiters about what has (not) been delivered. For these all entail a recognition of precisely the fact that sovereignty was promised not just as an end in itself but as something that would have benefits. Thus, with denial and downplaying of damage now being threadbare arguments, and forced to confront the lack of such benefits, Brexiters are now once again promising that great things are, or could be, just around the corner.
This bounty is, unsurprisingly, to be realised by a combination of global trade deals and a bonfire of regulatory red tape, as argued again this week by, amongst others, Iain Duncan Smith and Daniel Hannan. Alongside these promises and, again and significantly, in the ferociously pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph, articles by its Associate Editor (£) and Chief City Commentator (£) have warned, respectively, that the government is “squandering Brexit opportunities” and that “time is running out to prove that Brexit is not a historic failure”. Note, again, that all these supposed opportunities are economic, underlined by the way that Farage’s piece suggests that “supply-side reform could add 2 per cent to our GDP”. Whatever Brexiters – and, for that matter, some commentators on Brexit - sometimes say, their project has consistently made economic claims, relies in large part for its support upon those claims, and can legitimately be judged in terms of those claims.
Indeed, it is only a few months ago, at the time of the Tory Party conference, that Johnson made the claim that rising real wages was a key part of what the new post-Brexit model of the economy would deliver. In that regard, it is of note that the latest figures show that, even as he said this, real wages were static, and are set to continue to plateau or even fall in the coming years. It was in any case an opportunistic claim, designed to head off criticism of labour shortages, and little has been heard of it since. As always with Johnson, it was just a ruse to get through an awkward moment rather than a serious or sustained commitment.
However, this latest spate of commentary about the unfulfilled promises of Brexit does not mean that Brexiters have wised up to its realities. What the likes of Farage, Duncan Smith, and Hannan are engaged in is a rear-guard defence of their project which, whilst to a degree accepting that it hasn’t delivered, is also a doubling-down on the fantasies that it could, with one more push, be delivered. And, moreover, that if the government were sufficiently committed to Brexit then that final push would be forthcoming.
A conundrum for Johnson
For Johnson and his government this emergent criticism presents a conundrum. He can hardly admit that the Brexit that has been delivered is ‘disappointing’ since he is the one who delivered it, and is thus reduced to bathetic claims about re-instating crown marks on beer glasses and the use of imperial measurements on market stalls, which even Brexiters can see are pretty lame achievements. And whilst the government may sing the same tune as its Brexiter critics about future miracles in trade and deregulation it is constrained both by its continuing failure to deliver them and by the fact that a good section of its voter base, notably in the ‘red wall’ but also amongst its traditional farming and business heartlands, don’t want them. Moreover, no one believes what Johnson says anyway, for the sound empirical reason that he never tells the truth.
It is perhaps for this reason that he has followed his earlier, failed, attempts in December 2019 and September 2020 to stop cabinet ministers using the word ‘Brexit’ with the new style guide for the civil service which advises a similar silence. For it would indeed be easier just not to mention the B-word. Although even when unspoken Brexit proves to be a lose-lose, because whilst remainers mock the national liberation that dare not speak its name, Brexiters are furious that their project is being treated as if it were offensive or embarrassing.
If Johnson would rather not mention Brexit and the promises made for it, it is because he is now reaping the consequences of having been the most prominent person making those promises. From the very first, attempts to put Brexit into practice have revealed the falsity of the claims made for it. Only from outside of government can the fantasies be sustained and that is exactly what is happening again now. It’s already clear that trade deals will have no great positive effect, if any. Meanwhile deregulation is not generally wanted by either businesses and consumers, and both what it will consist of and what benefits it will bring remain almost entirely vague.
Fundamentally, this is because the Brexiter fantasies are incompatible with the facts of economic geography: the UK sits within the economic orbit of the EU because it sits adjacent to it in space. That won’t change, because it can’t be changed. There may well be some minor ways in which divergence from the EU will be both possible and beneficial. It’s conceivable, though at this point far from clear, that this week’s announcement on the post-Brexit farm subsidies system will become one of the more significant examples. But any programme of major regulatory divergence – on data protection, say – is only achievable at such huge cost that it would require an even more reckless government than this one to undertake it.
In a somewhat similar way, the realities of immigration policy, whilst it is certainly now very different as regards EU countries as a result of Brexit, in practice reveal the limitations and contradictions of Brexiters’ magical thinking. For whereas Farage’s article criticises it for potentially allowing a net rise in migration and thus breaking the promise of Brexit, businesses find it too restrictive and, as with the new terms of trade, massively increasing rather than destroying ‘bureaucratic red tape’ and thus breaking a different promise of Brexit. Meanwhile some of those most enthusiastic about the freedom to make global trade deals are the most pant-wettingly furious when they learn that such deals may, as in the case of India, entail liberalisation of immigration. Again this illustrates the way that all kinds of contradictory promises can be, were, and still are made to make the case, and maximise support, for Brexit but are revealed as incompatible when put into practice.
So whilst Farage and Hannan and Smith and all the rest of them can, from outside government, rail about all the things that should be done – as Johnson would most certainly be doing as well, if he were outside – the government itself cannot deliver them and, at best, can only go on promising or pretending to have done so, exactly as it is doing. This is a dynamic which is built in to Brexit and will undoubtedly recur for years and probably decades. That is partly because the economic effects – actual, potential or counterfactual – of Brexit are so complex and diffuse as to be endlessly debatable. But that dynamic is rather different as regards the other main ongoing Brexit debate, that over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).
Northern Ireland: a different dynamic
The NIP debate is different because, although also complex and diffuse in some ways, it has a degree of specificity and precision: there is an actual legal text, with concrete institutional arrangements that flow from it, and a concrete set of negotiations underway about that text and those arrangements. Going back to Phibbs’ attempt to discredit ‘Project Fear’ warnings, it’s telling that his ‘debunk’ of the warning that Brexit would lead to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the utterly risible one that “the border remains open”. For, of course, this is the case solely because the UK government was forced, virtually at diplomatic gunpoint, to accept that this consequence of Brexit was totally unacceptable and to make some arrangement to avoid it. The Brexit Ultras have never accepted that any border was necessary at all, but that fantasy could not be sustained by the government, hence the NIP and the Irish Sea border.
Clearly, as the last year or more has shown, the government itself does not genuinely accept, and certainly has continually tried to wriggle out of, what it agreed. So far, that has allowed it, a bit as with promises of trade deals and deregulation, to pretend to the Ultras that a new and perfect Brexit, unsullied by realities, is just around the corner. Part of that pretence has been that Article 16 could, and would, be the ultimate route to this nirvana. However, unlike the promises about trade and deregulation, it cannot be endlessly deferred, or even to any great extent misrepresented by PR, simply because it is the subject of concrete agreement with the EU.
We are still in limbo as to how that will play out under Liz Truss’s oversight, but the negotiations can’t drag on forever and – not least because of US pressure – an invocation of Article 16 currently looks unlikely. It’s all but unthinkable that the outcome will remove the Irish Sea border and, at that point, all the denial and obfuscation will, for practical purposes, end. So whilst it can be expected that Brexiters, and especially the DUP Brexiters (£), will continue to regard the NIP as a betrayal, and whilst it may go on being a source of friction between the UK and the EU, it is different to the more open-ended and nebulous issues of trade and regulation. A permanent segmentation of the UK single market will be the undeniable legacy of Brexit, something never proposed to voters in the 2016 referendum.
Why does this matter?
All of this matters for what happens in everyday politics and economics, but most profoundly because it is the latest stage in the political battle for the meaning of Brexit. The Telegraph headline about whether or not it will be proved an “historic failure” is an acute and revealing one. Whilst they still don’t understand why, the Brexiters do sense that their project has gone awry and they do care about the judgment of history – or at least the most ideologically committed of them do, because they genuinely believe that they initiated a ‘national liberation’.
That was always absurd, both in what it implies about EU membership and given the fact that almost half those who voted didn’t want it. Because of that absurdity, I think that remainers have never understood that the Brexiters (to emphasise, I mean the most ideologically committed, hard core of them, not their camp followers or rank-and-file leave voters – the Ultra Ultras, so to speak) do believe it. They believed it in 2016 and they still believe that it will come to be seen as true.
No doubt the most committed of them will believe it forever more, and will also forever insist that true Brexit is just one more heave away or, at least, that it would have been possible had it not been betrayed. However some, at least, realise that public opinion is beginning to settle permanently to the judgement that it was a mistake, in which case their life’s work will be forever discredited. The latest opinion poll finds that 52% think Brexit is ‘going badly’ and just 15% that it is going well. That has been the case for about three months now and, whilst it is still very early days with a lot of neutrals and don’t knows, if it persists for long, it will indeed coagulate into the judgment of history.
The Brexiters are right to think that this is what is currently at stake, and the rest of us should realise it as well. For if – and in my view when - that judgment pronounces Brexit not just a mistake or a disappointment but an abject failure and a disastrous folly, then new possibilities will flow.